At InterExchange, we hold DEIA close to our hearts—Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility. These principles drive our mission, offering people from diverse backgrounds incredible opportunities to connect during our programs.
But what exactly is Accessibility? It’s about ensuring that everyone, irrespective of their abilities or differences, can effortlessly access and use things like websites, buildings, experiences, or technology. Picture ramps and elevators for wheelchair users or subtitles on videos for the Deaf or hard of hearing. It’s all about creating a world where everyone feels included, where unnecessary barriers simply don’t exist.
Imagine exchange programs as keys unlocking new worlds. By surrounding ourselves with people from varied backgrounds, we gain a deeper understanding of each other and the world. It’s an adventure beyond our comfort zones, where we learn from those who differ from us.
Lions Camp Badger stands as a testament to this belief. It’s a special place where staff and international camp counselors come together, guiding campers with unique abilities and disabilities to experience the world in a way that makes sense for each person. This incredible intercultural experience illustrates how diversity and inclusion transform lives.
By participating in this journey, we aren’t just impacting the lives of others; we’re enriching our own in a profoundly positive way. Join us as we explore the power of diversity, inclusion, and the remarkable impact they make at Lions Camp Badger.
Kali from our Camp USA program recently sat down with two other Lions Camp Badger alumni—Paloma, from Mexico, and her American counterpart, Justin—to discuss how rewarding the experience can be. Check out what they had to share.
Justin Guille, Lions Camp Badger
Justin Gillule is a young professional whose career has focused on helping others grow and get through difficult times, including work as a Camp Counselor for people with special needs at Lions Camp Badger, a 9-1-1 Public Safety Dispatcher at the Tioga County Sheriff’s Office, and volunteer EMT/Vaccinator during the pandemic. Justin received his M.S.Ed in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and his B.A. in History from Elmira College. Justin is currently a first-year law student at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law and aspires to represent underserved communities as a criminal prosecutor in rural Upstate New York.
Paloma Silva Castellon, Lions Camp Badger Camp USA Participant
Paloma majors in Nutrition at Universidad De Guadalajara in Mexico. She is currently completing an internship at a hospital specializing in clinical nutrition. Over the past 2.5 years, she has also worked as a babysitter and teacher. Paloma enjoys music, painting, dancing, learning languages, working with clay, Polynesian dance, and solving puzzles.
What is the mission of Lions Camp Badger? (When was the camp established? Who does the camp serve?)
Justin: The mission of Lions Camp Badger (LCB) is to provide services that enhance personal growth and independence of differently-abled individuals through educational and vocational programming. LCB has been operating in its current form for almost 50 years and has sought to provide an excellent summer camp experience for people with special needs since the beginning. LCB serves people of all abilities, ranging from ages 6 to 60+, and includes a diverse and experienced staff of counselors, administrators, groundskeepers, and volunteers from all over the world.
What made you interested in working with special needs campers?
Justin: Working with people with special needs is the family business; both of my parents were special education teachers, and my mother is the current Camp Director for LCB. I have been helping people with disabilities since I was a kid, spending my summers volunteering at camps and in my mom’s classroom. Working at LCB was truly a blessing because I loved seeing how much fun our campers had. I will always jump on the opportunity to provide the summer of a lifetime for campers when it arises.
What made you interested in joining Camp USA and working in the U.S.? What in particular made you interested in working with special needs campers?
Paloma: I always wanted to study or work abroad but I couldn’t find anything that would fit my schedule, then I found summer camp and thought it would be perfect for me. I wanted to experience the American culture, practice my English, and have my own camp experience since we don’t have those in my home country. Growing up with a special needs family member made me understand inclusion, respect, and diversity. Later on in my life I was a teacher’s assistant in a cooking class for special needs people and loved it. That’s when I realized I wanted to dedicate a part of my life to that amazing community of people.
What have been some of the highlights/challenges of working with international participants at Lions Camp Badger?
Justin: The highlights far outweigh the challenges. LCB brings in a large array of international staff from every corner of the world. Some choose to return each summer, and for many it’s their first time being in the U.S. Language barriers are a common challenge with international staff if they are not confident about their English. Although this is difficult at first, the language skills often improve quickly and there is a lot of support for the staff if there are any problems. Additionally, many campers are adept at non-verbal communication and are incredibly friendly.
What was one of your highlights/challenges of working with people with disabilities in a new cultural environment? How was this experience different from what you could experience in your home country?
Paloma: I occasionally experienced homesickness, sadness, and exhaustion during camp, but the highlight is that the campers would make all those emotions go away. They would fill my heart with joy with their great stories and their happy and loving personalities.
How did working at Lions Camp Badger create the foundations or build upon your understanding of diversity and inclusion? Specifically, what is something you experienced at LCB that shows your commitment to inclusiveness?
Justin: Summer camp is a very special place for self-discovery. For our campers who may feel excluded from society, camp is a place where they are unconditionally accepted for who they are. For our counselors and volunteers, they work closely as a team and build a lot of trust to serve the campers. All of this helps foster a beautifully diverse and inclusive environment. I can clearly remember many moments from my own time as a counselor that showcased diversity and inclusion. One of my favorite activities is the International Day, when our international staff share their languages, cultures, and traditions with everybody so we can all celebrate their experiences. Another great activity is the Camp Prom, when campers can express themselves through dancing and fun, regardless of their level of ability. It’s amazing seeing campers who are normally shy feel comfortable enough to show off their dance moves. This can only happen if there is a culture of inclusiveness.
What advice would you give to a camp or host employer that is trying to increase its accessibility initiatives?
Justin: I would encourage all camps to be flexible with campers’ needs and adaptable to societal changes. Changing camp culture to one that celebrates diversity and inclusion can be initially difficult, but is ultimately worthwhile. It is perfectly acceptable, and in fact commendable, to show vulnerability if you are not sure how to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment. The first step is recognizing that change is necessary. From there, you can connect with resources and people who are knowledgeable; there are plenty of folks out there who want to help you accomplish your goals. These are just a few resources that are out there for camps to connect with:
2. Camp Fire
How has LCB’s mission affected you as a Camp program participant, as an employee of Lions Camp Badger, and as a person?
Paloma: I loved experiencing American culture and being part of the exchange community, sharing language, ideas, and traditions with everyone. As an employee I never felt more supported than I did working at LCB, it was a great team to work with and my problem-solving skills improved immensely.
What advice would you give to an international camp counselor who is interested in working with Special Needs campers?
Paloma: It’s definitely hard to get out of your comfort zone and go work in a different country with a foreign language, so it is normal to feel a little scared or nervous at the beginning. But as long as you have an open mind and open heart, you share your passion and enthusiasm and you’re willing to learn, you’re going to do great and have the best time!
By making the summer camp experience accessible to many who might not otherwise have the opportunity, Lions Camp Badger and its dedicated counselors are truly changing lives. Check out the full interview on Instagram.